Without Hindrance? Israel’s Torture of U.S. Citizens


14 October 1999 — For 30 years, the U.S. government has had evidence that the Israeli government has tortured American citizens, most of them Arab-Americans, whom the Israeli government has detained on suspicion of security violations. Despite the fact that some of these citizens have reported their experiences to the U.S. State Department, U.S. officials appear to have made few efforts either to secure the release of these victims or to vigorously protest their mistreatment. Instead, and in contrast to their behavior elsewhere, U.S. consular officials have told some victims that they can do nothing for them.

Torture Outlawed:

The Israeli Supreme Court decision of 6 September 1999 acknowledged Israel’s use of torture over the past 30 years and declared it illegal. In that decision, the Court’s president, Aharon Barak, wrote: “Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. A reasonable investigation is necessarily one free of torture, free of cruel, inhuman treatment of the subject, and free of any degrading handling whatsoever.”

The Court’s decision invalidates the excuse used by Israeli governments that torture is a necessary tool for fighting terrorism and confronts the U.S. government with an entirely new scenario. The Israeli admission of guilt in abusing human rights should impel the U.S. to demand the immediate release of the mistreated detainees. According to a statement made by President Bill Clinton on 8 August 1999,

“We have an obligation to protect all American citizens, regardless of where they may happen to be. As a result, we will continue to raise our concerns with the Israeli government. In addition, the annual State Department Human Rights Report has consistently documented Israeli human rights abuse.”

Still, there is no evidence that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has responded to calls that she discuss with Israeli leaders the release of tortured American prisoners, although she recently told Arab-American leaders that she had raised the issue of harassment of Arab-Americans at Israeli borders and checkpoints.

Extent of the Problem: U.S. consular officials in Israel have indicated that, at any given time, approximately ten U.S. citizens are being detained for security reasons by Israel. This does not include some 40 additional U.S. citizens detained on non-security charges. According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz (23 September 1999), “Shin Bet interrogators . . . have admitted that they regularly incorporated torture methods into their work. . . .” Moreover, the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision outlawing torture may soon be overridden by “by-pass” legislation permitting it again.

U.S. Consular Policies:

Page one of every U.S. passport contains this statement: “The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.” Yet the State Department’s consular service (Office of Overseas Citizen Services) advises that it can provide only limited assistance to American citizens arrested in foreign countries.

According to the Department, it can “work to protect your legitimate interests and ensure you are not discriminated against,” by insisting upon prompt access by a U.S. consul to a detained citizen, and by providing a list of attorneys. The consular service can also provide information about the imprisoning country’s legal system, arrange contact with the detainee’s family or friends, make regular visits, protest mistreatment, monitor jail conditions, provide dietary supplements, and keep the State Department informed.

Actual U.S. Consular Practice in Israel:

The sworn affidavits of three recent American victims of Israeli torture (Beshar Saidi, Anwar Mohamed, and Yousif Marei) report that consular officials provided virtually none of the above services. None were offered dietary supplements, in spite of the fact that they visibly lost weight at an alarming rate. While the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations indicates that the “arresting state shall, without delay,” inform the consulate that it has arrested one of its citizens, Israel appears to have been negligent in this matter. The family or friends of these detainees had to inform the consulate of their detention, rather than the reverse.

Moreover, Israel has failed to provide prompt access to these detainees; the U.S. consul patiently waited for as much as ten days before he was allowed to visit. Consular officials observed lamentable jail conditions, but they raised no protests. When a consul visited Saidi, who was tortured for 24 days, imprisoned for 18 months, and denied the use of a toilet for five days, the consul could not stand to be in the same room with him because of the stench; still, he lodged no complaint with Israeli authorities.

Anwar Mohamed was detained and tortured for 40 days. It was five days, however, before a consul visited. Although evidence of his torture was visible, the consul told Mohamed that there was nothing he could do but visit him once a month. Mohamed vehemently denies the claim, made by the consul, that he did not request consular action on his behalf because he thought it might lengthen his ordeal.

When, after his release, Mohamed asked the consulate to help him prepare an affidavit, officials refused and said he could do that when he reached home. When Mohamed asked why his American passport was not being honored to depart from Israel and why he was being forced to get a Palestinian passport, consular officials told him that he had to follow Israeli procedures. Afraid of being re-arrested at the airport, Mohamed requested that a consul accompany him. Declining to do so, consular officials casually said to Mohamed, “Call us if you have a problem.”

State Department Double Standard?

The consular service seems to follow a different rule book elsewhere. For example, when an American citizen visiting China in August 1999 was detained and reportedly “mistreated” by Chinese authorities for taking pictures of sensitive areas in Tibet, the State Department immediately airlifted a consul and a doctor to this fairly remote area and demanded and secured his release. The contrast with consular behavior in Israel is stark. In response to queries regarding U.S. citizens detained in Israel, the State Department indicated having sent only one “protest” and one “letter of inquiry” to Israel during the past year.

Apparently, no reply was made to either – a fact that does not appear to have insulted U.S. authorities, who failed to lodge further protests. At a press conference on 30 August 1999, State Department spokesperson James B. Foley claimed that, “If we feel an arrest is unjustified, certainly we will act on behalf of the American. In any case, whether an arrest leads to legitimate prosecution or not, we do have an abiding concern in the treatment of Americans regardless of the facts of the case, and we will weigh in each and every case that this is brought to our attention.” Clearly his words have not been matched by action.

Key Recommendations:

Consonant with its moral and legal obligations, the State Department should apply to Israel the same standards it upholds elsewhere in responding to the violation of U.S. citizens’ human rights by foreign governments and should make a public statement to this effect.

The Israeli government should immediately release all individuals whom it has tortured, regardless of nationality or assumed guilt. Torture renders moot the question of their guilt or innocence.

The consular service should change its operational policies to require that consuls immediately report any indications of mistreatment or torture and not await specific requests for help from the victims. Moreover, consuls should offer all detainees the opportunity to sign privacy waivers allowing disclosure of their detention. U.S. officials’ failure to inform all detainees about privacy waiver options makes the officials complicit in Israeli human rights violations.

The consular service should cease employing bi-nationals or “local hires” to visit U.S. citizens in prison.

The U.S. government should forbid the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation from sharing information with Israel about detained American citizens.

Mr. Jerry Bird is President of Partners for Peace, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C.